On an April afternoon in 2009, Michael Little was transferred to the US Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia and placed in general population. As he went to sleep that first night, he was unaware the brother of a man he had killed was an inmate in the next unit.
When the cell doors were unlocked the next morning, the avenging brother rushed into Little’s cell and stabbed him in the face, back, and ribs with a makeshift weapon.
Little survived and sued the government, accusing the US Bureau of Prisons of “deliberate indifference” for putting him in grave danger and failing to protect him. His claim, like nearly all prison negligence or wrongful death lawsuits brought against the government, would be dismissed. And the stark warning of the dangers of placing inmates with known enemies would go unheeded.
Nine years later, James “Whitey” Bulger, who was 89 and in a wheelchair, was transferred to Hazelton, where he was beaten to death in his cell by fellow inmates under remarkably similar circumstances. Just like Little, Bulger was transferred to Hazelton from another prison and placed in general population with inmates who had clear motive to do him harm. Just like Little, he was attacked the morning after he arrived.
Now one year later, authorities have not brought criminal charges or explained why the notorious South Boston gangster and longtime FBI informant was put within reach of organized crime figures from Massachusetts — a move one former Bulger lawyer equated to a death sentence.
Bulger was among 78 inmates killed in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons between 2013 and February 2019, according to data the agency provided in response to a public records request. Nine of those inmates were killed at Hazelton, more than any other federal prison, earning it the nickname “Misery Mountain.”
A Globe review of court records related to violent attacks at Hazelton and other federal prisons found that questionable inmate placements and the proliferation of weapons are systemic problems.
Critics say the deaths are an indictment of a prison system that has near total control over inmates’ lives, yet is seldom held accountable for incidents that result in deaths or serious injuries. Authorities routinely refuse to disclose details about prison murders and assaults, even to the victims’ families, citing ongoing investigations that typically drag on for years. Lawsuits rarely succeed, as prisons are given broad latitude in operational decisions, including the transfer and placement of inmates, and when to search them for weapons.
“It really is a rigged system for anyone seeking justice for a loved one,” said Edmund Wagoner, a lawyer for Kimberly Crawford, whose 24-year-old son Arvel was killed by a fellow inmate at Hazelton in March 2015.
Nearly five years later, Crawford said she still has no idea who killed her son or why. She had to hire lawyers before anyone at the prison would even call her back.
“I just don’t know why they sent him there,” said Crawford, whose son was serving a 93-year sentence for three slayings. “Was it a setup? Did they send him there to get killed? I really don’t know what happened. I have so many questions.”
Crawford, who is in her late 40s and lives in Washington, D.C., said she visited her son the week before he was killed. He seemed relaxed and did not express any fears for his safety. Crawford said her son was appealing his conviction.
“I’m a hurting mom that tosses and turns every night about my son,” said Crawford, who now takes care of Arvel’s 9-year-old son. “They treated him like he was dirt.”
Crawford said she fears that people are indifferent to the fates of federal inmates, dismissing them as criminals who do not deserve fair treatment in prison.
“He was a human being,” she said. “I love him. That’s my son.”
Crawford’s throat was slashed with a homemade knife, known as a shiv or shank. In 2017, Crawford’s lawyers sued, accusing the Bureau of Prisons of neglecting its duty to protect inmates by failing to adequately search for weapons.
But like Little’s challenge, the suit was dismissed. Prison staff told the court there were no specific regulations that dictate how Bureau of Prisons employees control weapons or intervene in fights, leaving those decisions to the discretion of correctional officers. In June, a judge ruled that he didn’t have jurisdiction because under federal law prison staff can’t be held liable for performing duties that are discretionary.
“The BOP must provide for the protection, safekeeping, and care of inmates, but this does not guarantee a risk-free environment,” US District Judge Thomas Kleeh wrote. “Decisions about how to safeguard prisoners are generally discretionary.”
Crawford’s attorneys, Wagoner and David Goddard, said Congress needs to change the law because it protects prison authorities even when they abuse their discretion.
“The whole system is a bit of a mockery of justice, and it’s by design because everything can be discretionary,” Goddard said. “And for anything that is discretionary, there is absolute immunity.”
In a statement Friday in response to Globe inquiries, the Bureau of Prisons said officials take “careful note to determine if inmates need to be separated from each other and once identified, takes care to ensure inmates are not transported with or confined with inmates from whom he or she is to be separated.”
And staff members use a “multi-faceted approach” to seize contraband, including metal detectors and whole-body image scanning devices, the agency said.
Yet authorities failed to stop an attack against Joshua Rich. Serving a lengthy sentence for armed robbery, Rich was transferred to Hazelton in February 2011. He immediately warned staff he needed to be separated from members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Rich, who is white, said he had been targeted by the white supremacist group at other prisons for associating with black inmates and not obeying the group’s rules.
Rich was placed in general population, where he said he and another inmate felt so unsafe they staged a fight so they would be sent to the special housing unit, where inmates are kept in isolation for 23 hours a day. But on Aug. 5, 2011, during that one hour of daily recreation time, Rich was placed in a recreation cage with five Aryan Brotherhood members, who beat and stabbed him with a 9-inch homemade knife. The weapon perforated his heart and liver and he underwent multiple surgeries.
A judge dismissed Rich’s negligence suit against the government in 2014, saying prison officials could not be held liable because they were acting within their discretion when they did not keep Rich apart from his attackers. But a federal appeals court ruled Rich could proceed with his claim that officers disregarded regulations that required them to thoroughly search inmates going into the recreation cages. The government settled the lawsuit, paying Rich $300,000, records show.
By that point, another Hazelton inmate had been attacked in nearly identical circumstances. In August 2012, Anthony Dallas, 31, was stabbed to death in a recreation cage in the special housing unit at Hazelton. Prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty for Michael Owle and Ruben Laurel, the two inmates charged with the slaying.
In court filings, Owle’s attorneys said prison officials were at least partly to blame for the attack. They said the inmates never should have been placed together because they were from rival gangs, a fact noted in their files, and Laurel had urged officers beforehand not to allow it. The lawyers said officers failed to thoroughly search for weapons. Investigators alleged Owle and Laurel brought knives into the recreation cage and that two additional metal shivs were found inside, hidden between the cinder block wall and the concrete floor.
“It is believed that correctional officers at the highest levels within Hazelton on various occasions and sometimes during inmate orientation warned inmates that Hazelton is a very dangerous place and that in order to protect themselves they must acquire a shiv or shank,” wrote Owle’s attorneys, Jay McCamic and John Tinney Jr.
In 2009, when Michael Little was transferred from a California prison to Hazelton, he didn’t know that the brother of a man he murdered was already there. But Little immediately got his hands on a weapon.
Little was serving a life sentence for two slayings, including the 2000 shooting death of Victor Brooks in Washington, D.C. When he arrived at Hazelton, a correctional officer asked him whether there were any reason he couldn’t be placed in general population, according to court filings in Little’s suit. Little said he responded “only if family members of the named victims” were there, according to the filings, but the officer said Little didn’t say anything.
Less than 17 hours later, Marcus Brooks, the brother of one of Little’s murder victims, ignored a correctional officer’s order to stop as he passed through a metal detector between his housing unit and Little’s, brandishing a makeshift knife, according to court records. The officer called for help as Brooks stabbed Little, who was also armed with a shiv and fought back.
Little was hospitalized with serious injuries. It’s unclear whether Brooks was injured. Both men pleaded guilty to possession of contraband — the homemade weapons. Brooks was ordered to serve one year on top of his existing 11-year sentence for drug trafficking, while Little was sentenced to an additional six months.
In his lawsuit against the government, Little said prison staff had to know Marcus Brooks was the brother of the man he killed. He said a case management coordinator at Hazelton was obligated to check his central file, which included a pre-sentencing report that would have contained the names of his victims’ siblings.
Instead, Little said prison officials “sent me out a sheep amongst wolves.”
In court filings, the prison coordinator said she didn’t review the central files of inmates who were transferred to Hazelton. She said the Bureau of Prisons office in Grand Prairie, Texas, which classifies inmates and determines placement, reviews pre-sentencing reports to decide whether an inmate should be separated from other inmates or groups. That information is entered in a database accessible to all federal prisons.
The coordinator said Little’s report showed no indication he needed to be separated from any inmates at Hazelton.
A judge dismissed Little’s suit, ruling that prison authorities had the discretion to put Little in general population and weren’t required to conduct a “family tree” search for inmates who were related to Brooks.
In Bulger’s case, his family in September filed a $200 million administrative claim with the Justice Department, alleging he was deliberately placed in harm’s way.
Bulger, who was serving a life sentence for killing 11 people in the 1970s and 1980s while running a sprawling criminal organization, had been held at a federal prison in Florida that was known as a safe haven for informants, gang members who had renounced their affiliation, and other vulnerable inmates.
He spent months in solitary confinement after a verbal confrontation with a nurse, suffered numerous heart attacks, and expected to be moved to a federal medical center. Instead, authorities changed his medical classification, indicating he required less care because his condition had markedly improved. That cleared the way for his transfer to Hazelton, which offers fewer medical services.
On Oct. 30, less than 12 hours after Bulger’s arrival at Hazelton, he was beaten to death by other inmates with a lock stuffed in a sock. Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hitman from West Springfield serving life for two gangland murders, and Paul J. DeCologero, a member of a North Shore organized crime group, are suspects in the slaying. They remain in lockdown at the prison, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation.
Federal authorities have declined to comment on Bulger’s slaying, citing an ongoing investigation by the FBI and the US attorney’s office.
Cameron Lindsay, a retired warden who worked at three federal facilities, but not Hazelton, said the Bureau of Prisons has “thousands of good people who put their life on the line.” But the agency has been plagued by a “a lack of sound leadership,” he said, and inadequate staffing, while the prison population has swelled with inmates suffering from mental illness and addiction.
He described Hazelton as an institution that “needs a lot of work” and said he found it “utterly shocking” Bulger was moved there.
“I could just not understand why the Bureau of Prisons would transfer the Al Capone of our time to a high security, dangerous prison where there were associate members of the Boston Italian mob,” Lindsay said. That they did, he said, suggests “dysfunction in the system, where there are failures at multiple levels, not just by one person.”
Since Bulger’s death, Hazelton has hired 110 more employees, most of them corrections officers, said Richard Heldreth, president of Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents union workers at Hazelton. As a result, violence and drug use have plummeted, Heldreth said, and there haven’t been any further killings.
“Things are looking a lot better here,” Heldreth said. “There has been a lot less violence. Overall, morale is way higher than it used to be. There are less people calling out of work. They’re happy to be here, happy things are headed in the right direction.”
The Bureau of Prisons had nearly 35,000 employees as of August and said it is “working hard to fill approximately 3,800 vacancies nationwide.” The inmate population is 176,882.
At Hazelton, 437 of 448 correctional services positions were filled as of Oct. 13, according to the agency.
There were 13 inmate homicides at federal prisons nationwide during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the agency. But since Bulger’s murder, there have been no serious assaults against staff or other inmates at Hazelton, the agency said.
Bulger was one of three inmates killed at Hazelton in 2018. In April, Ian Thorne, 48, was stabbed to death by another inmate. His attacker, Shawn Burrell, later pleaded guilty to possession of a shank and was sentenced to an additional 20 months.
Brian Kornbrath, a federal public defender who represented Burrell, said his client wasn’t charged with the killing because video footage showed he had acted in self-defense after Thorne attacked him with a lock attached to a belt.
Just weeks before Bulger’s murder, Demario Porter was stabbed to death in the Hazelton dining hall. The 27-year-old had been serving a 26-month sentence for a parole violation. No one has been charged in his death.
One former Hazelton inmate, Sidney Raymond Jones, said in an interview that the prison was “a very violent place” when he spent 18 months there between 2006 and 2008 while serving a 10-year sentence for kidnapping.
Jones recalled it as the most dangerous of the half-dozen federal prisons where he served time. He was stunned that Bulger was sent there.
“There is no doubt in my mind they knew exactly what was going to happen to him and they were waiting for it to happen,” Jones said.
Inmates routinely learned the identities of incoming prisoners days or even weeks in advance, sometimes from prisoners who worked in the laundry room and tagged names on uniforms for new arrivals, Jones said.
“With a guy like Whitey, there were probably 15 or 20 guys waiting for him,” Jones said.